European Eunion flag near Big Ben
Big Ben and the European Union flag during an anti-Breit protest in 2017. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Colleen O’Connor

Twenty years ago this week, Ireland did the unimaginable. They negotiated a peace.

Northern Ireland (predominantly Protestant) and Southern Ireland (predominantly Catholic) reached an agreement to get along. This after centuries of wars, fighting, horrendous tribalism and hatred.

As Nic Robertson, who covered the negotiations wrote, “the peace deal was no easy concession. More than 3,500 people were killed in what euphemistically became known as ‘The Troubles.’ Generations of anger and resentment, dating back centuries had to be overcome.”

Dubbed the Good Friday Agreement, and negotiated by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell (under the direction of Bill Clinton), this peaceful compromise is now in jeopardy.

Why?

Because the recent Brexit vote to leave the European Union has reopened old wounds separating the north and south and threatens not just the Good Friday agreement, but the tenure of Prime Minister Theresa May.

Simply put, one side wants to live under the UK umbrella.  The other to continue under EU auspices. And May’s slim majority rests on keeping both these Protestant and Catholic factions happy.

All this is further complicate by an EU deadline.

The “Irish question” must be resolved before the UK can begin serious exit negotiations on trade, immigration, banking, tariffs, and border controls — to name just a few legal and economic impediments — before the next European Summit in June.

Keenly aware of the leverage they hold, each side on the Irish question is upping demands regarding the border. One wants free access to the European market without customs controls; the other demands a “hard” border with physical constraints and inspections.

All of which makes the current U.S.-Mexico wall debate seem elementary by comparison.

CNN notes that the “310-mile border that snakes through some of the island’s most rugged and inhospitable terrain will become the EU’s only land border with the UK.  It currently has upwards of 400 crossings.”

Taking sides, Hillary Clinton, in her first op-ed published since losing the election, argued for saving the Good Friday agreement by keeping the “soft” border.

“We cannot allow Brexit to undermine the peace that people voted, fought and even died for. Reinstating the border would be an enormous setback, returning to the ‘bad old days’ when communities would once again be set apart.”

“The stakes could not be higher,” argues Robertson. “Today, the threat of a return to violence is very real. Even before Brexit reopened the Pandora’s Box of political demons along the border, paramilitaries on both sides are active. Police are responding daily to attacks, bomb threats — both fake and real. And gunmen still stalk some streets, executing punishment shots, much as the IRA did in its heyday.”

However, there are alternatives. And better solutions than reverting to type. Most preventable tragedies stem from a failure of imagination. For a moment, consider the possibilities:

  • Probable: The UK government and the Irish government can and will strike a deal.
  • Possible: May and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany see beyond their respective constituents and forge an alliance that keeps the current agreement stitched together or postpones the June deadline.
  • Least likely, but most desirable: Ireland holds a national referendum (north and south) to reunite the country, regain full sovereignty and negotiate deals with both the UK and the EU to the benefit of all Ireland.
  • Also possible: A referendum or redo on the Brexit vote itself—now that Cambridge Analytica’s involvement has been suggested.
  • Heaven sent: Unknown leaders arise like Maired Corrigan and Betty Williams, the two women leaders of a spontaneous mass movement dedicated to ending “The Troubles” in Ireland. Their efforts earned them the 1976 Nobel Prize for Peace.
  • Imagine the Unimaginable: Clinton, the former U.S. Secretary of State, uses “soft diplomacy” and quiet leadership, shuttling between May and Merkel (they are all friends) to fashion a solution satisfactory to all.

Let’s hope for a novel approach to save the EU, the UK and Ireland from uncertainty and possible chaos.


Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.